Freelance Contributor, TechHiveMay 9, 2023 3:00 am PDT
Image: Rob Schultz/Foundry
Vinyl has been enjoying a resurgence after decades of market domination by cassette tapes, then compact discs, and now streaming. LPs and 45s offer a tactile experience that no other format can match, and many listeners prefer the warm and fuzzy analog sound that defines vinyl listening.
Turntables are a bit more complicated to set up and maintain than other playback devices, and the physical experience of using them is just as important as the audio output when choosing just how you want to approach the vinyl experience. We’ve selected a wide variety of turntables that offer different approaches to getting the music from the grooves to your ears. All our solutions offer great sound and won’t damage your precious vinyl during playback.
If you need more guidance before choosing one, scroll down past our top recommendations and you’ll find an in-depth buying guide that will explain turntable technology and the features you’ll want to look for to help you narrow down your own pick.
The Fluance RT81 is a high-quality, entry-level turntable that sounds great out of the box. You can upgrade its cartridge and pre-amp with higher-end components down the road, which makes it a great value. While it doesn’t have features such as a USB port for ripping vinyl or a Bluetooth radio for streaming to wireless speakers, it comes with a very good cartridge and tonearm and it sounds great for its price.
Andover Audio’s SpinDeck Max offers a truly satisfying playback experience. Place your LP on the turntable, flick the Start switch, and sit back while the unit drops the stylus at exactly the right place on your vinyl, lifts the needle at the end of the side, and returns the tonearm to its resting place. No racing across the room to keep your stylus from repeatedly slamming against the end of the runout groove. The unit comes with a pre-balanced tonearm and the excellent Ortofon OM10 cartridge.
U-Turn Audio Orbit Theory — Best turntable priced less than $1,000
Comes with the Orotfon Blue cartridge
Electronic speed control eliminates need for manual belt adjustments
Fully manual operation means there’s no shutoff when a record finishes a side
U-Turn takes its excellent turntable design skills, upgrades the materials and electronics, and hand-builds a record player that can stand with the best in this price range. Spending this much means getting a plinth planed from a solid block of wood, a magnesium tonearm, a grooved acrylic platter, and a machined pully for the silicone belt. The model sent to us for review includes an integrated preamp and an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. It also means enjoying incredibly satisfying listening sessions with your favorite vinyl.
There are ultra-high-end turntables that cost upwards of six figures, but the Pro-Ject X8 turntable delivers true audiophile performance at a price that’s not completely out of reach. This manual, belt-drive turntable offers the option of using RCA connectors or switching to XLR connections for the best quality sound. Everything about the X8 turntable, from its heavyweight platter to its exquisitely balanced tonearm, delivers a true luxury listening experience.
The Monoprice Monolith 60046 does a lot of things incredibly well, but it’s especially useful if you’re looking to rip digital files to your computer via a USB connection. The included Audio‑Technica AT‑VM95E cartridge delivers a strong signal, and the results are stellar. The turntable can also stream to a Bluetooth speaker or connect to an audio system via RCA connectors, making it a great all-around performer at an excellent price.
Cambridge Audio Alva TT — Best turntable with Bluetooth
Beautiful design, build quality, and high-end sound in a turntable that’s easy to set up and maintain
Supports aptX HD codec for high-res streaming over Bluetooth
Built-in phono stage that supports both high-output MC and MM cartridges
All-in-one design will have you spinning vinyl in minutes
Bass response can be a bit shy
Remembers only one Bluetooth pairing at a time
The Cambridge Audio Alva TT adds Bluetooth streaming capability to a spectacular turntable that features the company’s own high-output MC cartridge. Support for aptX HD allows for higher-quality streaming to headphones and speakers that utilize the codec. Cambridge has since released a second version of this turntable, which we have not had an opportunity to review. Bargain hunters might want to snap up the remaining inventory of this first-generation turntable, which is currently selling for $1,000 less than the V2 model.
The Audio-Technica AT-LPW50BT-RW turntable has a button next to its tonearm for easy Bluetooth pairing. The unit come with Audio‑Technica’s outstanding AT‑VM95E cartridge, so it performs equally well in its wired and wireless configurations. There’s a built-in phono preamp and a solid aluminum platter.
Plus Audio The+Record Player — Best all-in-one turntable (i.e., integrated amp and speaker)
Great stereo separation from a single unit
Plenty of inputs
Outstanding build quality
Intimidating setup for turntable newbies
Heavy for its size
The +Record Player integrates an aluminum tonearm, an Ortofon OM10 cartridge, and a Pro-Ject Debut III turntable into an all-in-one unit that delivers great stereo imaging. The unit can act as a Bluetooth receiver, connect to a TV or streaming box via an optical connection, or play CDs or cassettes via the RCA inputs. You also can rip vinyl to a computer via USB.
Vinyl has a narrower dynamic range when compared to CDs and high-resolution digital audio, which means records deliver less audio information than their more modern counterparts. It’s also a destructive medium, since even the most delicately balanced tonearm and stylus scrapes a tiny bit off the surface of the vinyl each time a listener plays an LP.
That hasn’t stopped vinyl from becoming the preferred physical media for contemporary music fans. Part of vinyl’s appeal is the tactile quality of handling a record, the experience of looking at full-size album covers, and many listeners love having their music listening broken into discrete segments, since the maximum playing time on an LP side should be 23 minutes or less.
Vinyl aficionados also like to talk about the analog “warmth” that make LPs superior to CDs or other digital playback methods. In fact, that fuzzy analog sound is really distortion introduced in the mechanical playback chain. That truth doesn’t invalidate the experience, because there are generations who learned to love music via that slight distortion filter. It’s an essential part of our musical and cultural heritage.
During the golden age of LP recording (approximately 1957-1986), producers and engineers learned to color inside the lines of the limited dynamic range and used those limits to their advantage. Many recordings from that era sound best on a properly mastered LP played back with a quality turntable and cartridge.
More than a few modern recordings lose something when mastered for vinyl because the artists who made them weren’t limiting themselves to audio frequencies that can be played back via vinyl. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good listening experience with a Taylor Swift vinyl pressing, but it’s certainly going to be a different experience than you’d get from a CD or streaming.
Three things to consider when buying a turntable
The good thing about turntables is that they’re still essentially the same simple mechanical devices invented at the end of the 19th century, when flat, round discs offered an audio upgrade from the Edison wax cylinders. There have been innumerable innovations in recording technology and the stylus unit in the last 125 years, but that one great idea is still the foundation of analog listening.
The first thing to consider when selecting a turntable is the motor that spins the platter. You can choose either a belt drive model that features a rubber belt wrapped around the bottom of the platter and driven by a pulley system. A direct-drive turntable has a motor attached directly to the underside of the platter that spins the records without a belt.
A belt-drive turntable isolates the motor from the record and ideally reduces noise and vibration. The downside is that it takes a couple of seconds to get up to full speed. That’s the main reason why DJs prefer direct-drive turntables for their live mixing needs.
One of the big differences between a budget turntable and hardcore audiophile models costing tens of thousands of dollars is how the more-expensive models work to minimize vibration and interference from the motor.
James Barber / IDG
The second thing to consider is the tonearm. More expensive turntables feature tonearms that are lighter and easier to balance with a counterweight. There are a few entry-level, plug-and-play turntables that won’t require any tonearm setup, but most will require you to put on a counterweight, balance the tonearm and set the proper tracking weight. In general, the better the tonearm, the easier that setup will be.
The cartridge and stylus are the third element to consider when buying a turntable. The good news is that the mechanics on all the turntables listed above are solid, and that it’s easy to upgrade the cartridge and stylus to give your system a boost without investing in an entirely new turntable.